Red Lodge, Mont.: Gateway to Wilderness

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An 80-mile trail provides access from Red Lodge to nearby Custer National Forest. 
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Broadway Avenue in Red Lodge is a focal point of the community's strong identity. 

Naturalist and author Gary Ferguson was drawn to Red Lodge years ago by the 11 million acres of wilderness that surround it — the Greater Yellowstone territory he calls “the last great temperate, wild ecosystem.” He says he likes living in a place where residents aren’t alarmed if a black bear takes refuge in a neighbor’s apple tree. At 5,568 feet above sea level, Red Lodge nestles next to 1,600 acres of ski terrain on Red Lodge Mountain, offers great hiking in nearby Custer National Forest, and is the gateway to Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million majestic acres.

Red Lodge’s commitment to restoring the structures and facades of its historic buildings won it accolades from the American Planning Association in 2010 as one of the country’s best main streets.

With the Beartooth Mountains as its backdrop, the historic 12,000-acre Lazy E-L Ranch near Red Lodge practices a rotational grazing system that maintains the land by simulating the intensive grazing patterns of bison. Ranch manager Val Darlington likes to saddle up and ride to nearby Stillwater River, where she says she has caught trout up to 32 inches long.

Though much of Montana can be a tough place to grow vegetables, the climate and topography along the foothills and rivers of the Greater Yellowstone region create more favorable gardening conditions in Red Lodge. City Clerk Debbie Tomicich says she and her husband have gardened there for years, even growing an annual crop of tomatoes in the high country. She says a community garden is under way on the grounds of the old middle school, where youngsters from the Boys and Girls Club work with day-care children to help them learn where food comes from and how it is grown. The Red Lodge Farmers Market, held downtown every Saturday morning from mid-July through early October, features local, organic baked goods and produce, as well as bison, pork and chicken, and Navajo-Churro lamb and grass-fed Galloway beef. 

A recent High Energy Tour sponsored by grass-roots organizations, including the Northern Plains Resource Council and Alternative Energy Resources Organization, provided a vegetable-oil-fueled bus tour of sustainable energy projects in and around town, with consumer information on geothermal energy systems, composting projects and solar energy credits for homeowners. The Red Lodge Area Food Partnership Council offers a farm tour to help dispel the notion that Montana isn’t farm country, and a growing locavore movement provides a ready market for independent producers. At the council’s first forum and banquet in 2011, restaurants teamed up with growers and ranchers to serve sumptuous local fare.

Stats: Red Lodge, Montana

Population: 2,125

Climate: Short growing season; 24 inches avg. annual precip.; January avg. high: 34 degrees; July avg. high: 79 degrees

Median Household Income: $49,231

Median Home Price: $197,182

Check out the other towns featured in our 2012 installment of 8 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of.